Archive for the Dark Musings Category

Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

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A Tribute to Free Love in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, an occasion on which monogamous couples are encouraged to celebrate their union and romance. In many ways it’s a paean to heteronormativity – it’s meant for a man and a woman who are solely bound to each other.

Rather than feed into this, I want to talk about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW – one of cinema’s purest celebrations of free, uninhibited love and pleasure.

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Most people know of this film as a crazy, hilarious, purposefully bad sendup of 50s sci-fi films and musicals. It’s a midnight classic, still screening around the world with shadow casts and costumed fans who have memorized the lines. But even more remarkable is its depiction of sex and love. There is a Bacchanal sense of madness to the film, and an unabashed queerness, with men dressed as women, people sleeping with the same and opposite sex without qualm, orgiastic pleasure… All hot topics in social culture today. Only Richard O’Brien crafted this show forty years ago, when this was still a dangerous idea.

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RHPS is bold and overt in its dissection of traditional love. We begin with the wedding and proposal, played with grotesque, pure excitement; but it’s not long before we’re sucked into the frenzy of Frank ‘N Furter’s world. This is a character who completely destroys gender boundaries. His fabulous wardrobe, his ever-selfish dominance, and his obsession with Charles Atlas are his own, creating an identity independent from societal constructs. The wedding between Frank and Rocky is a terrific parallel to the opening scene. It would be seen as a perversion of that ceremony if it wasn’t so passionate, so free.

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What follows is a sexual awakening for Brad and Janet, whose sexuality was so clearly repressed. Frank initiates a renaissance for both of them – while they protest at first, they give into the pleasure and realize what they were missing. Janet’s tryst with Rocky is funny, sure, but she also finds her own identity in the act, as bold as Frank’s.

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And (SPOILERS!) the big number, followed by the orgy in the pool, ties it all together. “Don’t dream it, be it” – a hymn to all of those who felt their identities locked away, too ashamed to explore them. Frank might be hedonistic and bizarre, but he is liberated. His liberation carries over to Brad and Janet, too. They find their own happiness in sexual freedom because there is no longer fear. To anyone who has ‘come out,’ that experience is universal.

The ending has always struck me as far more tragic than the bulk of the film would justify. Frank is murdered for living his dream, seen as a perverted lifestyle by his own servants. His final song is heartbreaking in this context. And at that time, this was a reality. Anyone who did not fit into the societal definition of ‘normal’ was targeted for hate and violence. Is it a coincidence that O’Brien, who identifies himself as a third sex, concludes his show in this manner?

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It might end in sadness, but even so, Rocky Horror is wholly liberating. It presents these themes and ideas without batting an eye. So, rather than indulge in films that promote the image of ‘normal’ romance this holiday, I want to celebrate Frank ‘N Further’s message. Allow yourself to find your own identity and embody it to the fullest extent. As opposed to forty years ago, today, there is not nearly as much reason to fear.

“TOAD ROAD” and NO-BUDGET HORROR

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Very few people have heard of “Toad Road,” let alone seen it, but we all know its ilk – a no-budget film, mostly improvised, that is content to explore ideas rather than follow a story. There is a reason these types of films rarely grace the mainstream screens: they frustrate and infuriate viewers who want to see plot, drama, and emotional beats. Yet, they still find their place – and it is vital that us filmmakers celebrate their existence.

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“Toad Road” is the brainchild of Jason Banker, documentary specialist, who built a film around the urban legend of the Gates of Hell in York, Pennsylvania. Into the framework of this legend he places a group of drug-addicted friends – actual friends and non-actors who he found on MySpace – and simply films them interacting. Interspersed in their verite scenes are moments of horrific poetry, glitchy cameras and bloody faces, surrounding the idea of the Gates. There is something of a story, too – one of these friends gets a girl addicted to this legend (and a number of drugs), and ends up walking through the gates with her, but only one of them returns.

It’s all very nebulous, and one might compare it to a student film – after all, it’s as unglamorous as you can get, and the actors aren’t acting. But that’s what sets it apart. Banker orchestrates his non-cast so realistically, using his documentary instincts, and not a moment of their friendship seems false. It’s more visceral than any found-footage film because it is, essentially, real. (It must be noted, also, that the lead actress passed away before the film premiered – a tragedy that makes a mark on the film itself.)

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So most viewers will despise it. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed it myself – but I fell in love with the idea of it. In this money-guzzling industry, where it’s near impossible to get financing for your film, there is nothing wrong with shooting a film in the style of “Toad Road.” Why don’t more people do it? And why is it not encouraged in film school? Filmmaking is not about earning a paycheck (though at some point it becomes so) – it is about creating art, telling stories. “Toad Road” does this in its own way, and the effect is lasting. Even if its plotting lacks, its atmosphere, visuals and characters are drawn with skill.

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Films like this remind me of “Blair Witch” and “Marble Hornets,” even the original “Evil Dead” – you can see the tatters and the seams, but who cares, because the entertainment value is so damn high? The challenge with these films becomes getting people involved – convincing them that it’s worth the time. Because people don’t place much value on these no-budget efforts. I want that to change.

“Toad Road” left me with one vital emotion: inspiration. I wanted to go out and make something like this even while I watched the film. And so, forces willing, I intend to do just that. We live in the age of the internet, a free distribution platform – we must take advantage.

Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Our Western culture often associates December and its holidays with cheerfulness, light, and warmth. These are defenses against the long nights and cold winds that otherwise would haunt us. We forget, however, a tradition predominant in Victorian Europe, one that ran alongside the cheery tidings: winter ghost stories by the firelight.

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Evidence of this tradition exists throughout Victorian literature. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most famous, and the lightest-hearted – but many authors contributed darker tales. M.R. James, for instance, was famous for writing out his chilling stories by hand and reading them in utter darkness to his holiday guests. Other authors, such as Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, followed this tradition as well.

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These stories are far from cheery, designed to create dread and uncanny fear in the reader. Coming from these talented scribes, the effects are considerable. They spin for the fireside audience spectral evil, cursed objects, and decaying churches where wicked creatures hide. Sometimes the protagonists escape with only rattled nerves; other times the supernatural prevails. Rarely, however, do the stories end in upbeat morals, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” They are purely written to frighten and make listeners question the existence of ghosts.

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Where does this tradition come from, then, and where has it gone? We have shirked ghost stories and shivers for sentiment and comedy. I think, though, that these opposite moods serve a similar purpose. They both present a distraction from that dreary dark outside. Whether laughing or shaking, the entertainment is harmless – these ghosts don’t haunt us as they do the characters. It is the momentary catharsis, the communal chills, that make the ghost story an important part of the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, one day, it will reinstate itself.

Dark Musings: Social Commentary in Horror – What’s Missing in 2015

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by smuckyproductions

While horror often gets dismissed as a superficial genre, film theorists and fans alike will have a hard time denying that the best offerings not only influence cinema, but also help to define generations. The great horror films of the past hundred years manage to distill the political and social turmoil of their time and bring it to life as a corporeal monster. Through this monster we can begin to understand the pattern of real, human anxieties.

But there’s something missing from today’s horror. I don’t agree with people who say the modern genre is dead, because we have seen some amazing films in the past decade, but they are certainly missing something. We haven’t yet had a great defining horror film.

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Each decade is brimming with examples. The monster films of the 30s – Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, amongst dozens of others – show a dread of the invading foreigner. The 50s dished out countless monster and alien attack flicks, most of them having to do with radiation and scientific malfunctions that result in apocalypse; and perhaps the best of these, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, also depicts terror in the loss of identity.

Psycho moves away from monsters and shows the horrors hiding in ‘normal’ baby-boomer people of the 60s; and as the Vietnam war wreaked havoc, films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween revealed the chaos inherent in violence. The 80s reflect the 50s in the terror of the ‘other’ (films like The Thing and The Fly are even remade), adding its own sinners-get-killed slasher films as well. And finally, we reach the 90s and the 2000s, full of mundane evil (Silence of the Lambs) and also the contagion of the masses (28 Days Later and a Dawn of the Dead remake).

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Where do we go from there? The new millennium is full of neuroses and fears. Technology. Stolen identity in social media. Global warming. Apathy. Racism and sexism. Suicide and murder. Tragedy is everywhere, all over our computers.

Yet, I have a hard time finding horror that really comments on any of this in an intelligent, conscious way. Unfriended (or, preferably, Cybernatural) may be the only film that touches on social media at all. While there are some brilliant modern horror movies, their focus seems to be on calling back to distant eras (usually the 80s) or parodying the genre entirely. (This in itself reflects a generation that looks to previous decades to find its identity, rather than focusing on the present; but this is not intentional.)

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It isn’t important to examine the reason behind this absence, because I’m sure everyone can find a different opinion. But it does point fingers at the hole in horror that needs to be filled. Our generation is rife with more dread and anxiety than any before us, perhaps, because we are conscious enough to recognize these fears. So a call to action for filmmakers, myself included: plunder these fears for stories that will resonate. I think we deserve, and possibly need, those films. As the late and great Wes Craven said, seeing our fears on screen helps to exorcize them.

How I Pick My Halloween Films

Posted in Dark Musings, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

THREE. MORE. DAYS. 

Until the best, most horrifying day of the year. And one of my favorite ways to celebrate is to curate a marathon of films that speak to the spirit of Halloween. As a horror fan, this isn’t terribly difficult, but I still believe there is a precision to the selection process.

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When I mention this to the uninitiated, the response is usually simple – aren’t all horror films good for Halloween? My personal answer is: No. I am undoubtedly pickier than most, but many horror films don’t fit into the spirit at all. (It always confuses me why “The Shining” – year-round, my favorite movie of all time – is always chosen for October movie nights. It’s a winter movie, guys.) It’s a combination of atmosphere, imagery, and storyline, not just scariness.IMG_1097

So, what are my guidelines? I’m not totally sure. But it has to do with the spirit of Halloween itself. This holiday is a celebration of the spectral, the liminal, and the uncanny. The air itself is brittle with the impending change of seasons. Fireplaces newly lit exude a smell of homely smoke, and the quality of the light becomes shadowy as nights grow shorter. Houses drift and lunge with paper ghosts and fake spiderweb. It’s a unique time of year, tingling with a pleasant time of dread, as candles ignite and costumes conceal – so unique that film has a difficult time capturing the authentic atmosphere.

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Films that work for me, then, evoke the intangible and phantasmal quality of October. Surrealism and dream logic are the best examples. Synth-y music and dreamy camerawork combine to transport the viewer into a world apart.

There’s also the stories, of course. Monsters and ghouls make up so much of the childlike glee of Halloween – things that aren’t real become possible. Films that feature a terrific, fantastical villain, perhaps even several to give the film the quality of a well-produced haunted attraction, pay tribute to the variety of creatures that come to life on the 31st. These films don’t have to make their monsters scary, either. They just have to be honest.

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It isn’t precise, and is certainly ridiculous, but I hold true to my little science: autumnal atmosphere, ethereal score, dream logic, and a funhouse-esque parade of ghouls. Films that feature most, or all, of these qualifications are my favorite for the Halloween season.

Watch out for my personal top 10 list, coming out the day before Halloween, if you’re wondering what meets my conditions!

Four Horror Novels for Halloween

Posted in Dark Musings, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Happy Halloweek, everyone! To kick off prime celebration time, I’ve put together a short list of my favorite horror novels that capture the Samhain spirit. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but it scratches the surface.

For atmosphere, ghouls, and disturbing stories, these are four novels that can’t be missed.

THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ouvre goes beyond tedious, forced high school reads. “Seven Gables” is a classic American Gothic, stocked full of Puritan themes, eerie imagery of witchcraft and brutal settlements, and a terrific drama about a cursed family. The titular house is full of spectres not seen, but felt, memories that won’t go away. By now, a plot like this has been overdone, but Hawthorne’s gorgeous descriptions make up for any familiarity. Autumnal and phantasmal, it’s a must-read.

PET SEMATARY

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Yeah, yeah, Stephen King is great and all. But not all of his novels are suited for Halloween reading. “Pet Sematary,” though, has it all – cursed graveyards, undead children, evil spirits, and a spooky suburban setting over which the presence of death hangs like fog. On top of that, it’s beyond terrifying. The first time I read it, I had to put it down while I waited for the chills to pass so I could keep going. With both entertaining and psychological horror, and one of the most disturbing ending lines of all time, this one is perfect for ghost season.

HELL HOUSE

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A terribly cheesy title – but this is one of the best horror novels of the 1970s. Penned by weird fiction master Richard Matheson, this novel is oppressively atmospheric, with doom and dread oozing from the first pages. The house is masterfully described and full of hidden horrors – in true 70s fashion, psychedelic and sensual, too. The terse prose creates such an aura of paranoia and horror that it’s actually difficult to read through, but the suspense is such that you can’t stop. For a quick, terrifying, and entertaining read, with all the Halloween trappings, there is no better book.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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If you talk about Hell House, you have to talk about Hill House. Shirley Jackson is the master of quiet, psychological horror. This book pairs her brilliant character analysis with an uncanny haunted house story, a combination that results in madness and terror. It subverts the cliches in the most disturbing way possible. And Hill House is one of the most formidable villains in all of dark literature – how can you fight a house? Finding a way to dissect loneliness and agoraphobia within the most ghostly of places, “Hill House” is a truly horrific read.

As Halloweek chugs along, keep your eyes peeled for more original Smucky stories and short films! And stay spooked – it’s the best time of the year.